Ellie Kemper is from St. Louis. If you didn’t already know, it was only a matter of time until you found out. Her first book, a hilarious and heartfelt collection of essays titled My Squirrel Days, covers a lot of ground. Her stories about auditioning for SNL, working on The Office, and a Sound of Music bus tour gone wrong will make you giggle until you pee your pants—something that Ellie herself may or may not know a thing or two about. But as I read My Squirrel Days, I noticed a central theme: her hometown. Maybe it’s because I’m also from St. Louis, but it’s clear that she’s never forgotten where she came from.
You’re familiar with many of Ellie’s acting roles. She’s played fan favorites like Kimmy Schmidt, Erin Hannon, and Becca the naïve bridesmaid, to name a few. But she holds many other roles that you might not know about. She’s also a Jock, a Businesswoman, a Hysteric, a Hulk, a Diva—the list goes on. And now, she has one more title to add to the list: Author. If Ellie has ever made you laugh—and let’s be honest, that’s everybody—her book is a must-read. It’s a pleasure getting to know her in print.
If you’ve ever thought, I bet Ellie Kemper is the nicest person on the planet, I can confirm your suspicions are correct.
I spoke with her about betting on yourself, knowing when to quit something, and dealing with mommy-shamers. She also shared some excellent advice on how to be a bridesmaid for your BFF without losing your sanity. Did you know that Ellie was a bridesmaid IRL while filming Bridesmaids? You can’t make this stuff up.
HelloGiggles: We just did 10 minutes on St. Louis. I promise I have questions about My Squirrel Days, but I could keep going.
Ellie Kemper: If we need to allot our time, St. Louis takes precedent.
HG: We’re more obsessed with being from St. Louis than most people are about their hometown, right?
EK: Aren’t we?! My Cincinnati friend is very into being from Cincinnati, and she tells me those bonds die hard. But nobody else is like that, on either the East Coast or the West Coast. You might be too young, but so many of my friends have moved back there with their families. It’s a place that beckons you. You get it. We have a unique kinship, I feel. All the walls came down. I could talk about St. Louis until…the cows come home? I wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Until…pigs fly? Until forever.
HG: I’m sure St. Louis will come up again. On to the book: I love the way you organized My Squirrel Days. Each chapter centers around a different role you’ve played in your life. How did you decide what roles to focus on?
EK: That was really hard. When I set out to write the book, in my head, I thought, I’m gonna make this a combination of some personal essays, and also some more absurd McSweeney’s-type humor pieces. As I started doing that, I found that they weren’t really jiving. They weren’t sitting in a way that made sense together. I eventually decided, Okay. I think this should only be a collection of personal essays.
In terms of figuring out the stories I wanted to write, that part was hard for me. I’m private. There were some stories I didn’t want to share in this book. I wanted the book to be funny, I wanted to keep it light, and I wanted it to be entertaining. Keeping that in mind, I made my decisions based on that reasoning. It was like, What are the stories you think could be essentially relatable to other people? But also that you might have a unique perspective on? It was hard. An idea might sound okay in your head, but then when you sit down to write it, it actually doesn’t seem to flow. It was trial and error.
HG: What was the first kernel of an idea that grew into a chapter of the book?
EK: The stories that came most easily were the field hockey story [“Jock”] and the squirrel story [“Squirrel”] and the second grade teacher story [“Hero”]. Those popped into my head as stories I would tell my friends about. Those were the easiest to write. There was one that I thought, Oh, this won’t be anything. And then it turned into an idea: the collection of travel stories [“American”]. Weirdly, the ones that were about work, like the SNL audition [“Actress”]—that was the hardest chapter to write. I think it was a combination of tracking down those details and those memories, and going through emails to try and locate names and events. I wanted to be funny in all the essays, and it was harder to make those essays about work funny. I found them unexpectedly more difficult to write.
HG: The title My Squirrel Days is a nod to your younger days. You include your first headshot in the book and describe young Ellie: “She was full of light, of hope, and her cheeks looked like they were storing nuts.” When did the title come to you?
EK: I feel like Jerry Seinfeld—in many ways. I’m often compared to Jerry Seinfeld. No, I’m kidding! The thing about Bee Movie is he came up with the title first and then he wrote the movie. At least that’s what he says. I’ve always reminded myself of a squirrel. I feel like I hoard snacks. When I was on The Office, my hairdresser Sherry would always be like, You’re such a squirrel. I would always have granola bars in my pockets.
HG: The squirrel is like your spirit animal.
EK: Exactly! Here’s that word again: It’s like I have a kinship with squirrels. That was always percolating in my brain. I also just think “squirrel days” is a weird phase that makes me laugh. It wasn’t a phrase I invoked when I was describing my childhood, but my husband and I were talking one day. I can’t figure out how to describe this in a way that doesn’t sound like we were sitting down looking at a headshot of me. [Laughs.] I think we must have been unpacking or something. I came across my first headshot, and Michael was the one who was like, My Squirrel Days would be such a funny name of a book. Because I’ve wanted to write a book for many years. So that stuck with me. I think he was the one who came up with that idea, and I was very pleasantly surprised to hear that Scribner, the publisher, was on board with that title. I think it’s a weird title, so I’m glad they used it.
HG: Did you pose with an actual squirrel for the front and back covers of the book?
EK: Yes. Although…[Sighs.] I’m so disappointed to say I think the actual shot they used—I don’t know if the squirrel happened to be in that position at that time. He may be Photoshopped. But there was definitely a squirrel on location. His…uh-oh…I don’t know if it was a boy or a girl. I think it was a boy. His name was Squirrel. Just Squirrel. I definitely shot with the squirrel. He was on my arm, I was holding him—I’m very brave, not to brag. But Squirrel, to his credit, was just as brave as I was. I mean, he did get paid; it’s not like he was working for free. Initially, I had all these ideas for the photographer. I was like, I really think we should do hilarious shots of the squirrel on my face, him maiming my arm. And he was like, It’s a real squirrel. Why do you want that to happen? So we didn’t do that. That would have been painful.
HG: Well, if the front cover is Photoshopped, it’s very realistic, because Squirrel’s tail is touching your hand.
EK: I know. I have the book here so I’m looking at it. Again, I hope you don’t picture me surrounded by my headshots and books, and that’s what I do all day. I want to get a firm answer on this. I can’t imagine—I think it’s Photoshopped, but I’m going to ask. Certainly the one on the back is Photoshopped. I think?! Maybe not! The one on the spine is a fake squirrel. Those are the answers.
HG: Not to bring up St. Louis again, but you mention it a lot in My Squirrel Days. Maybe I just noticed it because I’m also from there, but do you feel like your hometown played a big role in your upbringing?
EK: Yes. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I wasn’t aware of that until I left St. Louis and moved to another part of the country. I didn’t understand that the Midwest is its own…I don’t want to say its own world, but it leaves its imprint on you. I went to school in the Northeast, and when I moved to New York, you do feel that Midwestern-ness. Not only is it being pointed out to you by other people, but I felt like I had a set of values and I learned lessons I think I could have only gotten from the Midwest. It might be subconscious, all the references to St. Louis, but I do feel loyal to St. Louis. I feel proud that I grew up there. And it’s why I keep trying to figure out how, eventually, I can relocate back there. I guess it’s just the people there that leave that mark.
HG: It’s such a nice place to be from.
EK: I’m sure I’m generalizing, but I trust people from there. I’m…yes. You can’t trust every single person from St. Louis. I want to be very clear. But I do think it’s why it’s easy to talk to you. There’s something about St. Louis where, I don’t want to say what I see is what I get, but there’s a sincerity that I really appreciate.
HG: One of my favorite sections of My Squirrel Days is “Jock.” I liked hearing you talk about knowing when to say goodbye to something.
EK: I wasn’t sure about that. My editor and I talked about it. If you’re writing a book that maybe young women are going to read—maybe? I hope they do—are you imparting a lesson? Is this a bad idea that it’s okay to quit? But I think it’s being realistic. And also identifying your skill set. Every person is left to make her own choice about what it is she wants to pursue or go after or do, but there’s some value in understanding, That’s not something I excel at. What I DO excel at is this. I think that’s a valuable decision to make. A lot of times, I have a tendency to try to prove something, mostly to myself. It’s only to myself, so I don’t know what value there is to that. After a certain point, you might be wasting your time.
HG: I’ve found that so often when we say goodbye to something, the universe has a way of sending us something else.
EK: Yeah! I think that’s exactly right. I’ve found that when you make a concrete decision about something, something else usually comes up.
HG: Speaking of tough love lessons, I also appreciated that in “Improviser,” you wrote about the two biggest things that can help you find success: doing the work and getting lucky.
EK: Oh my gosh. In any professional undertaking, luck has to play a part. Particularly in something as fickle as show business, of course it’s luck. Talented people will rise to the top, but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think luck plays a part. You can take matters into your own hands by being prepared for good luck, but so much of life is luck. That can be discouraging if you feel like you don’t have good luck. It can be dismaying to think, Luck plays that large a part? But it does. You can take control of it as much as you can and work to put the pieces into place, but timing—which is essentially luck—is everything. That can be applied to any career, but writing, show business, and most artistic pursuits have to do with luck and timing.
HG: It’s hilarious that you were a bridesmaid while filming Bridesmaids.
EK: And I ultimately had to miss my friend’s rehearsal dinner because we were shooting a scene. I was like, the worst bridesmaid on the planet. Art and life intertwine!
HG: Do you have any advice to be a good bridesmaid?
EK: I think you have to do what the bride says. The most important thing, when you’re a bridesmaid, is to remember that you’re not the bride. So don’t make any extra work. I’ve been bridesmaids with women who are a lot of work. And I always think to myself, You’re supposed to be doing the work. You’re not supposed to be adding to it. Remaining conscious of that is the first priority. You also have to suck it up a lot of the time. You might be asked to do some things that you’d rather not do, or take some trips that you’d rather not take, but what goes around comes around. Whether it’s when it’s on your wedding day, or on your 40th birthday, or whatever it is, it’ll come back to you with a full celebration. And take it all with a grain of salt. I’ve worked with a range of brides, some who are maybe more inclined to get stressed out about stuff and some who are not, and you have to modify your own behavior according to your bride. [Laughs.]
It’s so weird. Because I’ve been removed from it, I’m trying to put myself back in the sometimes-pain of it, and it’s too many cooks most of the time. And everyone’s trying to be the best. Not everyone, but a lot of them. They’re doing it for show. And then, there’s always the rogue or the absentee bridesmaid. And you’re like, Alright, Abigail, are you in? We haven’t heard from you! [Laughs.] Which I think has been me many times! It runs the gamut.
HG: You wrote a chapter called “Mom.” You tend to keep your personal life private, but you open up about motherhood in the book and call it “the role of a lifetime.”
EK: You are right about that. I even felt like in mentioning James at all that I was revealing too much. But I don’t know what that is; that’s my own craziness. People have kids all the time and talk about them. I think it’s because he doesn’t have a say. I don’t want to talk about him too much, because maybe he doesn’t want to be talked about. But at the same time, I try to focus on—as I often do—the “me” part of it. Me, me, me! How is this affecting me as I’m becoming a mom? That’s what I tried to focus on.
My husband has an Instagram, but it’s a private Instagram. He’ll post pictures of James, and I’m like, What do you mean, you’ve been posting pictures of James?! Because my friends will say, Oh yeah, we saw that picture. And he’s like, Ellie, it’s my friends. That’s a very normal thing to do. Even that I get crazy about. I don’t know why. I just started Instagram. It is so weird on Instagram. Whatever. I have many thoughts on it. But I’m definitely, definitely never going to post a picture of [James] on it. I don’t know why. Do you think it’s Midwestern? It feels very invasive.
HG: It’s like, why do people care?
EK: That’s what I don’t get. That’s how I am.
HG: Regardless, it was sweet to hear that being a mom is your favorite role.
EK: That’s nice to hear. It’s such a crucial part of my life, so it would be a glaring omission if I didn’t talk about it. Many parents talk about their kids and put their kids on Instagram, and that’s fantastic if they want to do that. But for me, I’m still getting used to being a mom. James just turned two—even then, I’m like Is that too much information?! He turned two in July. This sounds probably naive of me, but I keep comparing it to college. I’m like, How much did you really know after two years in college? I still felt like I was kind of bumbling. Whenever I’m taken aback by something that comes up in motherhood, I’m like, Well, Ellie, you HAVE only been a mom for two years, so cut yourself some slack. Because I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t think any parent knows what they’re doing. Although I always feel like my parents know exactly what they’re doing. They’re really good at it. Maybe I’m brainwashed.
HG: In My Squirrel Days you mention a woman who made a comment about the way your son was facing in his stroller. I’m sure those types of things happen a lot in real life, but then once it’s on the internet, it opens the flood gates for criticism.
EK: Oh, absolutely. It’s crazy. Especially in New York, because everyone’s just out all the time, oh my god. There are so many people butting in. We were at the pool the other day, and a co-parent was like, You know, he really shouldn’t be sitting on the edge like that. I was right there, and I was like, [gasps]. First of all, it sends your mind into a tizzy. You’re like, Were they right? Well, maybe they were right! I’m a terrible parent! I shouldn’t have a kid, take him away! But then, you get mad. Because you’re like, How dare you question my judgment?! My friends who have more kids and have been parents for a longer time just let that stuff wash over them, so I’m trying to get better about that.
HG: What is the most useful career advice you’ve ever gotten?
EK: I always try to think, What’s something that Tina Fey taught me? Because of course, she’s, like, Tina Fey. What’s something that she imparted? But she leads by example. With her, it’s not something she said that you take with you, because she just, like, behaves. But I know what it is. This agent who didn’t sign me—this was early on. I had met with him, and he was like, Well, I have too many clients right now. I can’t take on any more clients. I asked him his opinion about something a few months later, just to get his viewpoint. And he said, Well, I’ll tell you this much. You need to bet on yourself. And I was like, betting on yourself! It sounds so trite, but I really think it’s true. It’s Mindy Kaling. It’s the title of her book: Why Not Me? If you’re not going to take a chance on you, then no one else will. So I would say that’s probably stuck with me. And it came from an agent who didn’t sign me. You have to bet on yourself. If you don’t, then no one else will. I warned you it’s trite.
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read lately?
EK: Thank you for saying “lately,” because it’s such a hard question if it’s not lately. “What’s your favorite movie?” “In what way?” Okay. Favorite book that I’ve read lately is a collection of stories by Curtis Sittenfeld, I’ll Think It, You’ll Say It. She’s crazy. The book is so good. I love everything by her. I went back and read Prep recently, and she’s an incredible writer. Her characters are so…I don’t know how to describe them other than alive. They’re just people I know, and I’m sure you know. That’s probably my favorite book that I’ve read lately. I’m also just going to throw out, a few weeks ago, it’s a very sad, tough read, but I reread Blue Nights by Joan Didion. That’s a hard one, right? That’s a hard one.
HG: Oh, our queen. We don’t deserve her.
EK: I SAW HER! Sorry. Too loud. I saw her in Central Park this summer. She was out with someone. I was doing that thing that you shouldn’t do. I was gaping. I was like, Oh my gosh. That’s who that is. But then I quickly realized she probably wants privacy, so I stopped looking. She can write about so many different things, so well. That was very sad. That’s a hard book to read before you’re going to bed.
My Squirrel Days is now available wherever books are sold.